How did you become a writer? If I’m not mistaken you had originally planned to become a doctor...
The moment I read my first fantasy novel—it’s cliché to say this, but—I said, “This is me. This is what I’m going to do.” So I basically directed all of my efforts toward doing that. But my mother really wanted me to be a doctor. Toward the end of high school I let myself be convinced that writing wasn’t a realistic career for me, so I started college as a biochemistry major. But before long I realized I just didn’t enjoy chemistry and missed writing, so I changed my major and threw myself into writing.
What was it like to attend the classes of such renowned authors as David Farland at university?
Dave’s class was fantastic. It was really different from attending my regular college courses, because a lot of those people were good writers, but they hadn’t ever published professionally. They didn’t know the business, and Dave did. It was a turning point in my career where I was able to listen to a writer who had actually made a living out of it and could talk about the real world of writing. It was just really eye-opening for me to meet someone like that, to listen to them and hear their advice. It was wonderful, and Dave’s a fantastic writer as well.
The majority of your novels belong to the fantasy genre. Have you ever considered trying your hands at other genres?
I recently wrote a novella, Legion, that’s more a technothriller than science fiction or fantasy, but it still has a fantastic element. I expect that everything I write in the future will have some kind of fantastic element. It’s what I enjoy reading, so it’s what I enjoy writing.
What does fantasy mean to you?
Fantasy is an exploration of what could not be. This is how it differs from science fiction in my mind, in that science fiction is usually an exploration of what could possibly be and explores the ramifications of that. In fantasy, I try to look at worlds that couldn’t exist, with our current understanding of the laws of physics. I like to think of new branches of physics, to tell stories that no other genre could possibly tell, because all other genres focus on what could be or what is. The soul of fantasy is the impossible.
In your novels such as Elantris or the Mistborn series, you like experimenting with magic and its different manifestations. Why do you always keep looking for new kinds of magic? Where do your ideas come from?
I`ve always been a daydreamer; that`s probably why I ended up doing what I do now. Books, for me, come when I`ve got a lot of good ideas bouncing around in my head, and several start to combine together. It`s like a person trying to match various colors in a room; you try out different shades together and see what works. Except I`m trying out different ideas together and seeing what kind of chemical reaction I get.
With magic systems, first of all, I’m looking for something that fits the book that I’m writing. So for instance, in Mistborn, I was looking for powers that would enhance what thieves could do. I was also looking for something that had one foot in alchemy, in that kind of “coming-of-age magic into science” way. Alchemy is a great example because it’s a blend of science and magic… well, really, a blend of science and superstition, because the magic part doesn’t work. So something resonates there.
I’m also looking for interesting ways to ground the magic in our world, and using something mundane is a great way to do that. Magic is naturally fantastical, and so if I can instead use something normal, and then make it fantastical, it immediately creates a sort of ease of understanding. Burning metals sounds so weird, but it was chosen for that same reason, because we gain a lot of our energy through metabolism. We eat something, we turn the sugars into energy, boom. So that’s actually a very natural feeling. When I started writing out some sample things, it felt surprisingly natural, that people eat metal and gain powers, even though it sounds so weird. It’s because of this kind of natural biology. So I’m looking for that.
Once I have a magic system, I look for really great limitations. Limitations really make a magic system work better. A good limitation will force you to be creative, and your characters to be creative. Pushing and pulling metals is basically telekinesis, right? But by making it center of mass, you can only pull directly towards yourself or push directly away from yourself... Number one: it’s vector science. It has one foot in sciences. Number two: it feels very natural to us because this is how we manipulate force ourselves. Number three: it limits things so much that it forces creativity upon the characters. There’s that sweet spot, where they can be creative and do cool things, where it doesn’t become too limited, but it also keeps you from having too much power in the hands of the characters, so they are still being challenged. I’m looking for all that, and on top of that I want to have good sensory ways to use magic.
I don’t want to have two wizards staring at each other, and then be like “and they stared at each other very deeply! And then they stared harder!” I don’t want it all to be internal, which is where the lines for the metals came from. You see something, you push it forward. The pulses that some of the allomancers use, they’ll hear. I wanted sensory applications.
Speaking about writing: do you prefer any specific working method? How do you put your stories on paper?
I generally like to have a good outline; for me that’s important to have an ending in mind before I begin. It’s really the most vital part for me. I like explosive, powerful endings, and without knowing it ahead of time, I can’t point it [the story] to where I want it to go. So I would say that I’m an outliner. I do, however, like my characters to be more organic, to grow and come alive, and so I don’t spend a lot of time trying to force my characters into a box as outlined in an outline of a book, but try to let them grow and become who they want to become, so to speak, as I write.
In 2007, Robert Jordan’s widow selected you to complete the Wheel of Time series. What was your reaction when you heard the news and how did you start the work on the series?
Nobody was more surprised by it than me. I didn`t even know I was being considered. Like most fans of the series, I was just shocked and saddened that Jim Rigney (Robert Jordan) wasn`t going to be there to finish it himself. About a month after his passing, I woke up one morning and found that I had a voicemail. I listened to it, and it said, "Hello, Brandon Sanderson, this is Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan`s widow. I`d like you to call me back. I`ve got something I want to talk to you about." It was one of those moments where you are absolutely certain at first that someone is playing a prank on you and then you start to shake nervously at the thought that it might not be a prank.
When I got hold of her, I found out that she was looking at me as one of the candidates to finish the Wheel of Time. I hadn`t applied for this or anything like that. I considered Jim in many ways to be a mentor. I had read a lot of his books when I was trying to decide how to write myself, and he strongly influenced what I produced. I`d never met him, so I didn`t know him personally, and that`s what dumbfounded me when I got the phone call. I was absolutely stunned. I`m afraid I stammered a bit when I told her I would be honored to be considered; in fact, a while after I got off the phone I sent her an email that started, "Dear Harriet, I promise I`m not an idiot."
I felt honored and overwhelmed at the same time. While I didn`t ask for this, the truth is that I`m extremely excited to be involved. I love this series, and I wanted to see the last book written as much as any other fan. For a writer like me, the next best thing to having Jim write the novel is being able to work on it myself.
As it was mentioned earlier, you always like to create a unique world in your books. How did it feel like to write in a universe created by another author? Did the limits of this universe prove any inconvenience to you?
In some ways it was difficult, because for the first time in writing a book, I wasn’t the one who had the ultimate decision on how things went. But in another way, this was the one series created by someone else that I could write in comfortably. I grew up reading these books, so the characters were like old high school buddies to me. I felt like I knew them and knew their world, for even longer than the worlds I had been inventing myself. So in that way, writing in the Wheel of Time was doing something familiar, like coming home.
According to recent news, the last book of the series, A Memory of Light had already been sent to the publisher. Now that you had finished the series, do you think you reached your goals? Are you satisfied with your work?
Yes. My main goal all along was to do the book in a way that Harriet would be pleased, as Robert Jordan’s widow, because she had to be the guide on this. At the end of the day, my job was to satisfy her desires for a book that lived up to Robert Jordan’s legacy, and I feel very confident in the way I`ve done that. I feel very satisfied with my work on the project. I don’t think I did a good a job as Robert Jordan would have done it, but I think I did it better than anyone else—other than him—could have.
Would you tell us about your plans for the future? Which of your series would you like to continue?
My immediate goal is to continue the Stormlight Archive with the sequel to the Way of Kings. I’m writing that now, and I plan to finish in April so that it can be published in time for Christmas 2013. We’ll see if I’m actually able to do that. Also in 2013 I have two young adult books coming out. The Rithmatist is a gearpunk fantasy about the son of a cleaning lady at a magic school—he can’t do the magic himself, but he gets free tuition because his mother works there. Then there’s Steelheart, which is a post-apocalyptic book about people who get super powers, but all of them turn out to be evil. The main character is a boy who thinks he saw the one weakness of Steelheart, the emperor of Chicago, and he meets up with a group of assassins that discovers these villains’ weaknesses and takes them out.
You are most widely known for the Mistborn novels in Hungary, so we are especially curious about this series: when can your readers expect the next book in the series?
I do plan to write a sequel to The Alloy of Law between books in the Stormlight series, and will probably write more of those after that. The second major Mistborn trilogy is something I will write after book five of the Stormlight Archive.
If I’m not mistaken, you have great plans with this universe and you intend to write more trilogies set in this world. Would you tell us about this conception in some detail?
Sure. I originall pitched the Mistborn series to my editor as a sequence of three trilogies. Past, present, and future—epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction; all with the running thread of the magic system.
Since I just started coming out with the Stormlight Archive, I want to commit myself to that and don’t want to dig into the second Mistborn trilogy for quite a while. Yet I want to prep people for the idea that Mistborn is going to be around for a while, and they are going to be seeing more books. I didn’t want it to just come out of nowhere at them in ten years or whenever I get to it. So I decided to do some interim stories.
One of the things I’d been playing with was the idea of what happened between the epic fantasy and the urban fantasy trilogies. We have some very interesting things happening in the world, where you’ve got a cradle of mankind created (by design) to be very lush, very easy to live in, so a great big city could grow up there relatively quickly; civilization could build itself back up over the course of just a couple of generations. Yet there would be very little motivation to leave that area at first, which I felt would mean that you’d end up with this really great frontier boundary. The dichotomy between the two—the frontier and the quite advanced (all things considered) city in the cradle of humanity—was very interesting to me. So I started playing around with where things would lead.
To worldbuild the urban fantasy trilogy coming up, I need to know everything that happened in the intervening centuries. Some stories popped up in there that I knew would happen, that would be referenced in the second trilogy. So I thought, why don’t I tell some of these stories, to cement them in my mind and to keep the series going.
I started writing The Alloy of Law not really knowing how long it would be—knowing the history and everything that happened, but not knowing how much of it I wanted to do in prose form. Things just clicked as they sometimes do, and I ended up turning it into a novel.
Given the choice, which of your universes would you most like to live in? Which magic system would you most like to try?
Well, those are actually two different questions for me, because Allomancy is the one I’d like to have, but that world is pretty awful, at least during the era under the Lord Ruler, and I certainly wouldn`t want to live there. The question becomes what period in what books are you talking about, because, you know, by the Alloy of Law Era, the world of Mistborn would be a pretty decent place to live. However, I do think if you’re going to pick one to live in, probably Elantris at the end of the first book is the best place. They`ve just got a lot of neat nice things going on, and it’s a pretty modernized society, so I think that would probably be the best one.
Finally, would you like to impart some message to your Hungarian readers?
I really appreciate my Hungarian readers. I don’t think I have a specific sort of message or goal; people talk about “What’s the goal of my writing,” and it really is just to tell a good story. I don’t sit down and say, “What’s the theme I want to get across with this?” Granted, themes will grow out of one of my characters, but I don’t sit down to teach a lesson. I just sit down to tell a story. That’s kind of the goal of my entire career. And so I don’t know if my career is to teach a lesson, other than “I want to tell great stories, and I’m glad people enjoy them.”
Thank you for the interview, and we wish you all the success in the future.